“Excession” by Iain M. Banks
Review copyright 1998 by P. Douglas Reeder
Excession is set in Banks’s “Culture” universe, and has the usual cast of giant intelligent starships, militaristic aliens, and troubled humans. The setting is pure space opera, with conflicting galactic civilizations and elder races with fantastic powers who almost never appear. The story, however, is not so unrealistic, being an adventure and serious love story.
The Excession is a strange artifact/phenomenon which appears to have the ability to travel between universes, escaping the heat death of our own, and is potentially the key to technologies far beyond the ultra-tech of the “Culture” universe. Rival nations vie for control of it, with the possibility of war. Dajeil Gelian and Byr Genar-Hofoen are ex-lovers caught up in the movements and plots.
Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen are interesting enough characters, though the amount of text devoted to their development is unsatisfying. Most of the text is taken up by events which are hard to organize in one’s mind and tangential to the story-line. Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen are both veterans of the Contact organization of the Culture, Genar-Hofoen being a representative to the Affronters, an aggressive new culture on the Galactic scene. Dajeil is in seclusion aboard the starship/Mind Sleeper Service, gestating a baby for forty years.
Excession suffers from an overly-large cast of characters, including a dozen difficult-to-distinguish giant intelligent starships, a half-dozen of whom have significant roles to play in the plot. The story-line jumps from one setting and group of characters to the next, making it hard to remember what any particular character was doing last, and with whom. Also, the text gives little help distinguishing characters who are important to the plot from those who are just there to give atmosphere.
The pacing is slow, to paint a broad pictures, not unlike a Mitchner novel. IMHO this is a mistake: people are interesting, raw history is not. A story should have focus. Banks could easily have cut this novel by a third, and should have cut it by a half.
For all the ultra-technology and body-changing technology, the characters seem remarkably contemporary. Readers need to be able to relate to characters, but given the exotic setting, some of the characters should appear more alien, particularly the Minds, the supposedly super- intelligent computers running starships and such. IMHO super-intelligent characters cannot be properly viewed from the inside since the author is not super-intelligent him/herself, and so need to be viewed from the perspective of someone more human.
The resolution of the adventure is adequate, but depends so heavily on the hinted-at abilities of one character that in retrospect the situation was never in doubt. I.e. it didn’t really matter in the end what most of the characters had done or not done. The resolution of the love story is more satisfying.
Alas for fans of cool gadgets, no clever tools or weapons are used, as in Consider Phlebas.
If you decide to read Excession, keep in mind that the major characters are the humans Dajeil and Genar-Hofoen and the starship Sleeper Service. The alien Fivetide Humidyear and the starship Attitude Adjuster are significant supporting characters. No one else matters, despite the space given them.
If you like anecdotes and atmospheric sides-stories, and/or space-opera- type settings, you will probably enjoy Excession. If, like me, you prefer a more focused story, give it a miss.
%T Excession %A Iain M. Banks %C New York %D copyright 1996 %I Bantam Books %O “trade” paperback, US $12.95 %G ISBN 0-553-37460-5 %P 390 pages